Members of the Mt. Lebanon Equal Opportunity Board (EOB) have until Oct. 1 to make a decision about their futures as volunteers with the community’s best interests in mind.
The board came into existence last year, in accordance with a municipal anti-discrimination ordinance enacted in 2017, with the stated purpose of initiating, receiving and investigating “complaints charging unlawful discriminatory practices.”
Conducting such activities in an effective manner, though, depends largely on forging a “work-sharing” cooperative agreement with Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, and the municipality has been advised the state agency is committing its resources to other matters of higher priority.
Meanwhile, Mt. Lebanon Commission has agreed to pursue establishing a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Ad Hoc Committee of the municipal Community Relations Board, in part to address issues involving discrimination.
As a result, the Equal Opportunity Board essentially has lost most of its purpose, at least until when, or if, a work-sharing agreement is reached with the PHRC. Board members, in turn, have been given the choice of remaining on the board or resigning and serving on the ad hoc committee, with the decision to be filed with municipal liaison Bonnie Cross by the start of next month.
Discussion about forming the committee and specifically focused working groups within prompted EOB members to express their concerns and frustrations, first at the commission’s Sept. 8 meeting and then during the board’s monthly meeting, held by videoconference the following Monday.
“A lot of the work in the formation of these groups went on simultaneously to the work that we’ve been doing, and we were not informed that the commission wanted to go a different way,” member Mary Beth Waine said. “We were blindsided by this.”
Commissioner Leeann Foster, who joined colleague Mindy Ranney in drafting plans for the ad hoc committee, explained the process started following the May 25 death of George Floyd and the Minneapolis incident’s repercussions.
“Over the summer, we had many people meet with us in the community who wanted to see more action around these issues,” she said. “We didn’t have a fully formed plan for the ad hoc committee until just the last month, to be able to present to anyone.”
Steve Silverman, another commissioner who joined the EOB meeting, said the intent was to meet personally with board members about the developments, rather than relaying the information electronically.
“I realize that, unfortunately, led to some of you feeling like it was a sudden change. But that was part of the situation we were in with COVID,” he said, referring to the limited opportunity for in-person conversations during the pandemic. “We really felt this is an important face-to-face topic, and there wasn’t a way to have it at that time.”
Waine agreed the lines of communication could have been better.
“We were not out of the country,” she said. “We could have been contacted with an email in March, April, May or June and told, ‘This is happening. Do you want to get in on it?’”
Regarding the ad hoc committee’s formation, Foster said commissioners would be interviewing interested residents with the goal of making appointments at their first meeting in November.
The Mt. Lebanon Community Relations Board, founded in 1966 primarily because of some discriminatory practices at the time, “encourages compliance, respect and appreciation for diversity in race, age, culture, sexual orientation and economic status,” according to the municipal website.
“The CRB and the EOB have overlapping powers, to put it mildly,” solicitor Philip Weis acknowledged during the Equal Opportunity Board meeting. “I will be the first one to say I’m very sorry for how this occurred, and how the EOB was formed and how it’s been functioning. But the commission looked at the entirety of the CRB, the EOB and the ad hoc groups that it wants to form, and came to a decision that this is the best way to move the community forward.”
Foster and Silverman also offered apologies to the board members.
“In the effort to try and not make it worse, it sounds like we have made it worse. And that was not our intention,” Silverman said. “We’re all trying to do better for Mt. Lebanon, and we don’t want to hurt the feelings of folks who are taking time out of their day or evening to volunteer to help us.”